- 29 Jul 1976
- Montreal 1976
Classy Szewinska achieves Olympic greatness - Athletics
By any definition of the term, Irena Szewinska’s athletics career was a remarkable one.
The Polish sprinter was one of the most outstanding all-rounders the sport has ever seen, competing in five editions of the Olympic Games, winning three gold medals. She remains the only athlete to have held the world record in the 100m, 200m and 400m.
Of all her many memorable wins, her victory in the 400m at the Montreal Games in 1976 must go down as the most impressive.
She was born in Leningrad in the Soviet Union, but after the Second World Warher family then returned to Warsaw where she went on to enjoy great success as a student and athlete.
She burst onto the international scene at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo at the age of 18, finishing second in the 200m behind American Edith McGuire and claiming another silver in the long jump, which was won by Great Britain’s Mary Rand.
She capped off a brilliant Games by helping the Polish women’s 4x100m relay quartet to win gold, upsetting the mighty Americans.
Four years later in Mexico City she failed to progress to the latter stages of the 100m and long jump, but made up for it by going one better in the 200m, winning gold in a world record time.
She came away from Munich 1972 with a bronze in the 200m before a serious ankle injury and the demands of raising a family forced her to change her training regime.
Coached by her husband Janusz Szewinska, her focus switched to the 400m and her dominance was to be just as great as it had been in the sprint events.
Two years before the Montreal Games she became the first woman to run sub-50 seconds and she went to Canada as a hot favourite for gold.
However, she faced tough opposition. East German teenager Christina Brehmer had snatched the world record off the Pole earlier in the year and the scene was set for a dramatic showdown at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.
Szewinska cruised through her heat before smashing the Olympic record in her semi-final. Brehmer meanwhile booked her place with similar ease.
The pair matched each other stride for stride in the final until the final 150 metres when the Pole showed her genuine class and stamina.
She burst clear to win by several metres, clocking an astonishing world record time of 49.28 seconds.
Injury prevented her from being a medal threat in her fifth Games in Moscow in 1980 and she retired soon after.